Grant Park's Loss
On the verge of its 60th season and just as it's about to hit an impressive new stride, the venerable Grant Park Music Festival has been left leaderless. Last week Catherine Cahill, the festival's general director and artistic director for the past three years, announced her impending departure for the New York Philharmonic, where she'll serve as general manager, reporting to the orchestra's highly touted executive director Deborah Borda. Cahill says she isn't leaving because she was dissatisfied with her job, but because the New York Philharmonic was such a good opportunity: "They called, and I didn't think I could pass up such an offer even though I love Chicago."
In her brief tenure Cahill made substantial improvements in the Grant Park festival, and her announcement had several people closely connected to the festival wondering why she chose to leave just as she was beginning to make her presence felt. In a long interview last week Cahill noted one factor that may have tipped her hand in favor of New York: the strict bottom-line mentality that has taken hold at the Chicago Park District since the arrival of Forrest Claypool as general superintendent. "We've had to fight for every penny we get," says Cahill. She calls Robert Penn, the previous superintendent and the man who hired her, a "people person who passionately loved the parks."
Whether or not he has the same passion for the parks, Claypool is playing hardball with the budgets. For its 60th-anniversary season the Grant Park Music Festival received $1.5 million in direct operating support from the Park District's whopping $315 million total annual budget, down from approximately $1.7 million last season. To cover its $2 million budget this season, the festival is getting another $300,000 channeled through several other Park District budgets and about $200,000 from the independent, not-for-profit Grant Park Concerts Society, pressured by Claypool earlier this year to boost its outlay to the festival to cover the city's cutback. Claypool's strategy so far has been to stress the need for more private-sector funding for certain Park District programs. Explains Park District marketing director Marj Halperin: "We're trying to shift the burden from taxpayer dollars to corporate sponsorships."
Cahill's improvements to the festival during her three-year stay have been many and varied: flower boxes now add color to the stage, the trees surrounding the concert site are festooned with lights, and the public seating is freshly painted. Cahill also worked with the festival's catering company to create a sit-down restaurant in the park where once there were only trailers and booths dispensing food. And she says the festival will get a newly designed and more attractive program book this year. But perhaps her biggest coups have been on the programming front: She spent most of her tenure at the festival wooing the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's respected young music director and conductor Hugh Wolff, and earlier this year she succeeded in signing Wolff to a three-year contract as principal conductor of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Furthermore, she nabbed famed pianist Van Cliburn to join conductor Leonard Slatkin in kicking off the festival's 60th
season. Cahill also broadened the spectrum to include theater and dance events where budgets would allow.
Now the question is whether the momentum Cahill has generated will continue. Halperin says the Park District will be appointing an interim general director to guide the festival through its 60th season, but beyond that she doesn't know what will happen. She insists, though, that Claypool and the Park District are committed to cultural programming in the parks; under her guidance, for instance, a summer dance training program is starting in conjunction with the Auditorium Theatre and the Dance Center of Columbia College.
The eighth annual Spring Festival of Dance, based for the first time almost entirely at the Shubert Theatre, ended on a mixed note last week. Companies familiar to Chicago audiences, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, and the always popular Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, did well at the box office, while less familiar companies such as Garth Fagan Dance and the slick and entertaining Lar Lubovitch Dance Company struggled to bring in audiences. But the major difference between this year and years past was the much higher cost of presenting at the for-profit Shubert. Joseph Holmes, for instance, sold about the same number of tickets as it did for its engagement at the not-for-profit Civic Opera House last year, but the cost of mounting a performance at the Shubert was about $30,000 higher than at the Civic. Grants and other contributions prevented the company from incurring a loss on its Shubert engagement.
Meanwhile Ballet Chicago, fresh from the premiere of its first full-length ballet, Hansel and Gretel, is faced once again with managerial turnover. General manager Colleen Loeber, who arrived last summer as the latest in a long line of managers who have tried to stabilize the troubled company, is going on maternity leave at the end of June. Yet to be determined, apparently, is whether Loeber will eventually return to the company or be permanently replaced. Nick Harkin, the company's director of marketing and public relations since last fall, also left the company a couple of weeks ago for a position at Margie Korshak Associates. For all its problems retaining top management, one source said the company has weathered the past six months with no major financial crises. But it will face a new season next fall with a smaller corps of dancers (around 10, as opposed to 18 during the just-ended season) and what one source termed "a light schedule."